How the Rev. John Hagee got religion (the Catholic kind)
5/16/2008 8:42:00 PM
By Wayne Slater -Dallas Morning News

AUSTIN - Here's the backstory on how the Rev. John Hagee got religion (the Catholic kind).

When the San Antonio televangelist burst onto the national political scene in February with his endorsement of John McCain, it wasn't pretty.

Instantly, the Internet was filled with snippets from sermons and provocative YouTube clips of the portly pastor calling the Catholic church "the great whore" of Revelations and suggesting the Vatican was complicit in the Holocaust.

Catholics, particularly Bill Donohue of the Catholic League, howled in protest. Publicly, Mr. McCain scrambled to distance himself from the pastor, whose endorsement was aimed at winning evangelicals.

Behind the scenes, there's been a campaign to repair the damage.

Key to the effort was Deal Hudson, a former Southern Baptist turned Catholic from Fort Worth who in 2000 was tapped by political guru Karl Rove to help win Catholics for George W. Bush. This year, Mr. Hudson is on Mr. McCain's Catholic outreach team.

Faith-based voters are a staple in the GOP base. And the Rev. Hagee, who broadcasts worldwide from a 19,000-member megachurch with a flotilla of satellite dishes, is an influential figure in among evangelicals.

Mr. McCain had been wooing the San Antonio pastor for more than a year. And when Rev. Hagee finally agreed to endosre him in the breezeway of a San Antonio hotel last February, the media asked about the pastor's end-times theology. But nothing about Catholics.

At Catholic League headquarters in New York, Bill Donahue was instantly on the case, denouncing the Rev. Hagee as an anti-Catholic bigot. He was everywhere: CBS, CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews.

The McCain camp now had a pastor problem, like Barack Obama.

Enter Mr. Hudson and the Hagee Catholic Rehabilition Tour.

Over lunch in Washington a few weeks ago, a contrite Rev. Hagee told Mr. Hudson his remarks had been misconstrued. He explained his "the great whore" quote was really about the apostate church, Catholic and Protestant and said some of his best friends were former Catholics - his wife and many Hispanic members of his congregation.

Clearly, there was work to be done. For one thing, you don't build bridges with Catholics by touting how many people have left the church.

More to the point, the Rev. Hagee's views had been informed by, among other things, the book "Hitler's Pope." Mr. Hudson offered a countervailing view of history, emphasizing how so many in the church had opposed the Nazis.

Last Friday, the Rev. Hagee sat down with 13 Catholic leaders in Washington. Mr. Hudson called it "upbeat and positive."

As for Mr. Donahue, he said he wouldn't meet with the Rev. Hagee until he got a public letter of apology. On Monday, he got it.

A meeting between Mr. Hagee and Mr. Donohue was arranged for Thursday at the Catholic League office in New York. Mr. Hudson recalled the scene.

"I hear a Southern accent," declared Mr. Donohue with a Boston Irish ring. "It must be Pastor Hagee."

The two got along fine, Mr. Hudson said.

Mr. Donohue showed the pastor and his wife the window where, from the 34th floor, he'd watched the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. He expressed shared support for Israel against Islamic extremists and said it's important, politically, that conservative Catholics and evangelicals work together.

"That is the liberals' worst nightmare," Mr. Donohue said.

In the fall, when the controversy over Obama pastor Jeremiah Wright likely bubbles up again, Democrats will point to the Rev. Hagee. This time, they won't have the conservative Catholics to count on.

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